Math Teacher Recognized for Excellence in Teaching

Prof. Stephen Pennell with a student in the lab Image by Joson Images
Prof. Stephen Pennell and former student Betty Makovoz use MATLAB software to draw curved surfaces. Makovoz received a bachelor’s degree in math in 2014 and a master’s degree in education this year from UMass Lowell.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

Prof. Stephen Pennell of the Department of Mathematical Sciences has been awarded the Manning Prize for Excellence in Teaching. The honor, presented to faculty members who demonstrate outstanding teaching and exemplary dedication to students and the campus community, was established last year by alumni Robert ’84 and Donna Manning ’85, ’91. It recognizes one preeminent faculty member from each of the five UMass campuses.

“I am happy and honored to receive the award, but I am also humbled,” says Pennell. “There are so many outstanding teachers at UMass Lowell that I feel very fortunate to have been selected.”

Pennell has received numerous teaching awards from his department, the Student Government Association, student-athletes and the university’s Council on Undergraduate Teaching. He is highly engaged in the campus community, having served for four years as director of the Honors Program (now the Honors College) and is the faculty adviser to both the leadership honor society on campus, Omicron Delta Kappa, and the national mathematics honor society, Pi Mu Epsilon. He has also earned recognition for his advising and support of students with disabilities. His interdisciplinary research includes his involvement with the Center for Wind Energy on campus.

“Letters of support from colleagues and students, a course syllabus and sample projects were among the factors considered for the award,” says Special Adviser to the Chancellor Don Pierson. “One math department colleague commented: ‘It is rare to see him in his office with no students there getting help. ... He has a reputation for never turning anyone away.’ ”

A Passion for Teaching

Assoc. Prof. Karen Roehr of the Department of Art & Design nominated Pennell for the award.

“Stephen personifies what is means to be an engaged, caring and excellent teacher. Stephen’s passion for math and teaching inspires others,” wrote Roehr in her nomination letter.

Pennell has been teaching at UMass Lowell for 34 years, since the fall 1982 semester.

“I came right out of graduate school and was completely clueless about how to teach,” he recalls. “Luckily for me, I had two great mentors: Al Doerr and Bernie Shapiro. Al was chair of the Math Department when I was hired, and he showed me the ropes. He also had the wisdom to assign me to teach management math courses under Bernie Shapiro. Bernie is the person who taught me how to teach.”

Pennell received a Ph.D. in applied mathematics from Brown University in 1982. “When I was finishing up my graduate work, I wasn’t sure what I would do next. The only thing I knew for sure was that I was getting out of academics. The country was in a recession at that time, though, and I had no luck finding a job in industry or in a government lab. I heard about a one-year teaching position at what was then the University of Lowell, applied for the job and was lucky enough to get it. Much to my surprise, I found that I loved teaching. The one-year position became a permanent position, and I’m still here. My wife, Melissa, is a professor in the English Department. We have both been very happy here.”

Pennell says his students and colleagues are what make his job so much fun. “Getting paid to do math is a dream come true for me. I love hearing about what my colleagues are working on, and I love getting the chance to work with students and learn how they think about mathematics,” he says.

Reflecting on his career, one memory that stands out from his early years was teaching management pre-calculus. “Math is not the favorite subject of the students in that course. Many of the students regard math as an arbitrary collection of rules they just have to memorize. Near the end of one semester, one of my students realized that the rules were not arbitrary and that in fact the rules had to be the way they were. It was very gratifying to see the light bulb go off over her head when she made this discovery after working hard all semester,” he says.

Pennell and his wife live in Londonderry, N.H.